Susanna J. Sturgis    


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"What's a P.C. Feminist like You Doing in a Fantasy like This?": A Few Answers and a Few Questions

"A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you."[1]

My favorite among the essays in Joanna Russ's wonderful collection Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts is "Pornography by Women for Women, with Love." "Pornography by Women" is an exuberant, entrancingly red-faced examination of the "Kirk/Spock" (or "K/S") stories that are a thriving subgenre of Star Trek fandom.

To summarize very briefly (while urging you to read Russ if you haven't already): K/S stories focus, in varying degrees of explicitness, on the sexual and emotional relationship between the (male) characters Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock of the starship Enterprise. The avid writers, publishers, and readers of K/S stories are virtually all women.

Drawing on the work of Patricia Frazer Lamb and Diana Veith, and of Camilla Decarnin,[2] Russ disposes persuasively of the facile notions that K/S aficionadas want to be men and that K/S sex can be read as literally gay male. She says that the characters are essentially androgynous. One K/S writer whom Russ quotes believes that many women "can't see themselves saving the universe once a week, they can't let their own sexuality out without becoming dependents or victims. So Kirk and Spock do it for them."[3]

I have feminist friends who can't understand the attraction K/S stories have for some women. I, on the other hand, was shrieking and blushing in instant recognition as I read Russ's essay, not because I was a closet K/S fan, but because I have my own version. All the characters in my fantasy world are men. Before I read Russ's essay, this did not seem an, uh, appropriate topic for feminist conversation or writing.

In her essay on K/S, Russ suggests that "sexual fantasy can't be taken at face value,"[4] and that "only those for whom a sexual fantasy 'works,' that is who are aroused by it, have a chance of telling us to what particular set of conditions that fantasy speaks, and can analyze how and why it works, and for whom."[5] I agree with both points.

Russ has been writing for well over a decade about how the female imagination has been constrained, when not totally stifled, by the roles that our patriarchal culture assigns to women. In "What Can a Heroine Do? or, Why Women Can't Write," she wrote, "Novels, especially, depend upon what central action can be imagined as being performed by the protagonist (or protagonists) -- i.e., what can a central character do in a book?"[6]

Patriarchal culture affects our fantasy lives whether we are writers or not. It's hard for many of us to imagine our female selves having adventures, especially once the heterosexual deportment imperative has started to operate in earnest. It's even harder to imagine a world where women adventurers are no big deal. In fantasy I've managed to resolve the contradictions to my own satisfaction, sexual and otherwise.

Similar resolutions seem to be operating in the work of a number of feminist fantasy and science fiction writers, where deep sexual and emotional bonds exist more often between men than between women, and where the men are often androgynous outsiders. Take for instances the fantasy novels of Diane Duane, or Rebecca Meluch's grossly underrecognized sf novel Sovereign. Take Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover novels - of which more later. The only writer I can think of who has managed to portray man-man, woman-woman, and woman-man relationships of equal depth and intensity is Elizabeth A. Lynn.[7]

The geography of my own fantasy world is generally desert, with some magnificent mountain valleys. In appearance and custom the people are vaguely Bedouin, organized into clans and tribes, living by herding, raiding, and some crop cultivation. Once every generation or so, they fight a truly epic war, and spend the next generation dealing with the consequences. Technology is basic, horses are of primary importance, and weaponry consists of swords and the occasional rifle.

All the active characters in my fantasies are men who combine high rank with great ability, charisma, and physical beauty. (Plain, noncharismatic men of ordinary ability and low rank are almost as hopeless as women.) From the beginning, I have identified most strongly with the ones who have fallen on hard times. They are captives, hostages, slaves, and sole survivors of massacres in which most of their people perished.

These humbled princes almost invariably become lovers of princes who haven't been humbled at all. Most of the latter are also outstanding individuals, although their power and good fortune may skew their vision somewhat. They are always older than their lovers, often by a generation. The successful relationship is one of mentor and protégé, in bed and out of it. Eventually the protégés are either restored to their birth rank, or elevated to another appropriately responsible position.

In its desert setting, my fantasy world owes much to my long-running passion for Middle Eastern history, which began in the fourth grade. The necessary creative spark, however, came from the film Lawrence of Arabia, which I first saw when I was almost eleven.* The movie relationship between Lawrence and Ali roused my imagination,[8] but within a year the movie characters had vanished, along with other historical references.

One of the many reasons I loved Lawrence of Arabia was that there were no women in it. When women appeared in films, action stopped and things got embarrassing; it was time to go out for popcorn. I almost always identified with male characters; they were the ones who got to ride and fight and have adventures. If even they got weird when the women showed up -- well, I forgave them. What choice did I have? Even now, a lesbian-feminist going on 35, I rarely have trouble identifying with fictional male characters. Real life, need I say, is a totally different matter.

Over the last ten years, I have tried periodically to write women into my fantasies. Every attempt has failed. I did manage to create one young woman with a heroic past, but once things settled down there was nothing for her to do but marry a suitably heroic man, whose major relationships of course were all with other men. She turned to wood and disappeared.

Although I created this fantasy world, it has its own internal logic. Violations of that internal logic are like mutations that can't live in their postnatal environment. Interesting women violate the logic. So do non-Arabic persons and place names. As I forgot more and more of my Arabic language studies,** I tried making up words to Arabic noun and verb forms. No go. The characters wouldn't use them; the words died.

I cannot simply will change in my fantasy world, but change does happen. In the first eight years or so, violence was endemic and very much like what Russ finds in the K/S stories, i.e., "various beatings, blindings, and mutilations which [sic]# necessitate not only intense emotional intimacy, but also one character's touching and holding the other with an eroticism only lightly veiled in the story . . ."[9]

Since then, violence has become both rarer and more realistic. What became endemic in its place was sex. Sex is every character's second language. Sexuality was a powerful force in my fantasies long before I recognized or acknowledged it in my life. Sex was neither celebrated nor forbidden to me when I was growing up; it just wasn't there. I also learned early on how dangerous it was not to have the right answer.

When in the wake of the early feminist sex debates (four or five years ago), I started looking for patterns in my fantasies, I saw that for ten years I had been living part-time in a place where it was safe both to be sexual and to admit ignorance, inexperience, and/or powerlessness. My focal characters had been playing out in infinite variety the scenarios I couldn't imagine for myself. The geography of my fantasy world was alien on its surface, but I was more at home there than I was anywhere else.

I'm still quite at home there. Going off into my fantasy world is one of my favorite ways to avoid writing. I have, in fact, made several excursions there while working on this essay.

The feminist sex debates have created a polarized, combative atmosphere where honest public discussion of our sexual fantasies is virtually impossible. Anti-pornography feminists, of course, regularly describe the content of commercial pornography, but their horrified indignation hamstrings their analysis. The other side seems to have taken the defensive stance that what turns them on is a totally private matter, and not a legitimate subject for critical reflection.

What's going on? Are we afraid that we're going to find out something indigestibly terrible about ourselves? Or are we worried that political and/or psychological analysis might drain the magic from a cherished sexual fantasy? It hasn't worked that way for me. The fantasies still work wonderfully, and now I have the additional adventure of trying to figure out what my clever subconscious is up to now.

Strange as it may seem to some, I am no longer interested in adding women characters to my fantasies, or in changing the gender of the men. I can't change them by force, yet themes and relationships rise, recur, and vanish, like certain cards in my tarot readings. I believe that fantasies, like dreams, can be turned, like a herd of stampeding horses, by using their own internal logic.

As an example, let me offer a fantasy world that is familiar to many feminist readers: the planet Darkover, which Marion Zimmer Bradley created and has chronicled since the mid-1960s in at least seventeen novels and many stories.## Readers of the Darkover books tend to become regular visitors and even part-time residents. Many (most of them, it seems, women) have written Darkover stories themselves; Bradley has collected the best of these into three book-length anthologies.

Darkover's culture is resolutely patriarchal. The Darkover novels published in the 1960s, such as The Planet Savers and Star of Danger, are primarily adventure stories, and most of the adventurers are men. Even in the later, much more fully realized novels (e.g., The Heritage of Hastur, The Forbidden Tower), the most persuasive relationships are between men; the male characters come to life as the women do not.

In the early 1970s, Bradley published Darkover Landfall, which tells the history behind the legends of Darkover's origins. A Terran spaceship, on the way to set up a colony on another planet, crash-lands on Darkover. They are unable to leave. The relatively egalitarian mores of the settlers are challenged by Darkovan conditions, which make it hard for women to bring pregnancies to term. The result is an ethic of compulsory pregnancy and male "protection" of women. Patriarchy takes hold, supposedly for the good of the whole fledgling community.

Feminist sf writers and critics screamed to the rafters about Darkover Landfall. It infuriated me when I first read it, but after a while I understood: Darkover already existed, and Darkover, as the most casual reader could see, was patriarchal. Bradley was writing its history. Had the women of the first landing party managed to rebel and win, the Darkover of, say, Heritage of Hastur would not exist. Critical inquiry, in other words, would have been more usefully focused on Darkover itself, not Darkover Landfall.

A quick skimming of "What Can a Heroine Do" or "Pornography by Women for Women, with Love" (both mentioned above), not to mention the early paragraphs of this essay, should provide some explanations. In addition, consider the science fiction market, which even now -- and all the more so in the 1960s, when Darkover first came into print - is presumed dominated by adolescent males. The appearance of patriarchy is no mystery. The marvelous mystery is the appearance of the Free Amazons.

The options available to Darkovan women are so limited that marriage is one of the more attractive. But women who want something else can join the Free Amazons, formally the Order of Renunciates, who renounce economic, physical, and emotional dependence on men. The first Free Amazon, according to Bradley, "walked out of my subconscious mind as a problem" for the sexist protagonist of what became the first Darkover novel.[10]

The Free Amazons did not take center stage in a Darkover novel until almost fifteen years later, in The Shattered Chain (1976). The last few years, by comparison, have seen a veritable explosion of Amazon activity: Thendara House, City of Sorcery and the Friends of Darkover anthology Free Amazons of Darkover. Not to mention Hawkmistress!, whose independent female protagonist joins the Sisterhood of the Sword, a forerunner of the Guild of Renunciates. What has happened?

What I think has happened is that Marion Zimmer Bradley is successfully challenging the internal logic of Darkover. It did not happen suddenly, or with great grace. I screamed as loudly as anyone when in The Shattered Chain Jaelle became lovers, not with Magda but with Magda's ex-husband Peter, a twerp. I groaned all the way to the end of Thendara House: Why couldn't Bradley just relax and let the characters do what they wanted to do?

Nevertheless, Bradley has brought the Free Amazons into the foreground of Darkovan history. There have been finagled plot lines and stilted characterizations along the way, but having tried unsuccessfully to do something similar myself, I have immense respect for her achievement. She is doing the speculative fiction equivalent of the work of feminist historians: uncovering and believing in evidence that according to the internal logic of patriarchy cannot exist.

Speculative fiction is a genre well suited both for envisioning futures and for discovering the constraints that the past imposes on the present. For example, it is no longer difficult to find strong women characters in sf, but sexual and/or emotional relationships among these strong women remain relatively rare, except in the utopias and guilds where there are no men around.[11]

I used to wonder why feminist small presses published so little fantasy and science fiction, particularly of the lesbian-oriented variety. Recently I had a dizzying insight: Feminist small presses publish loads of lesbian-oriented fantasy, which I -- looking for something comparable to mass-market f/sf -- was not recognizing. Most lesbian fantasy looks less like The Wanderground and more like Patience and Sarah, Curious Wine and Rubyfruit Jungle.[12]

The latter three books, which generally are not considered to be fantasy, all bear striking resemblances to my sexual fantasy desert world. Patience and Sarah, a love story nominally set in the nineteenth century U.S., really exists in a world outside of time, in no time. As in many (most? all?) lesbian romances, the women in Curious Wine are remarkably beautiful and so affluent they don't have to worry about money, unlike the overwhelming majority of the book's readers. And Rubyfruit's Molly Bolt is the adolescent fantasy hero for whom good is good, evil is evil, and nuances never get in the way.

I suspect that for most lesbians, being simultaneously "out," financially secure, and happy is a powerful fantasy. It was not so long ago, after all, that most fictional portrayals of lesbians culminated in heartbreak or suicide; such fates were as inevitable as marriage for heterosexual women (and not unrelated either!).

Now that I am juggling enough ideas for a dozen papers of this length, I'm going to cut out and go back to the desert. We all know how much fun fantasies are, whether they're sexual and private or written down and published -- or some combination of the two. They are also subjects worthy of reflection. They are paths into the subconscious. They reach far deeper than notions of political correctness ever will. I believe that the creative and thoughtful use of fantasy can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves and our relationships as women to our women-hating culture.

Note from two decades later: In the spring of 1985, I attended a workshop in Baltimore led by novelist Maureen Brady. The workshop was called "Secrets, Settings, and Characters," or something like that. In the "secrets" section, Maureen had us write at the top of a piece of paper "I could never tell anyone that . . ." and then run with it. I wrote about not being able to tell anyone in my lesbian feminist community that all of my fantasies were about men. With most of the workshop's exercises, we volunteered to read our own work. Because of the nature of this one, Maureen said she would be glad to read some of the writing herself; we could put it in a box with no name attached. I did so. Mine was one of the pieces she read aloud. Within half an hour I was claiming it as mine. By the end of the year I had written this essay; it was published in the spring 1986 issue of Lesbian Contradiction. What a lesson in how quickly a secret can go from unspeakable to in print, thanks to the spoken and written word!


[1] "From England to Poughkeepsie," in Ursula K. LeGuin (Susan Wood, ed.), The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, New York: Putnam, 1979, p. 93. Currently available in a trade paperback edition from Berkley.

[2] Patricia Frazer Lamb and Diana Veith, "The Romantic Myth and Transcendence: A Feminist Interpretation of the Kirk/Spock Bond," Conference on Fantasy, Boca Raton, Florida, 1982; and Camilla Decarnin, "Interviews with Five Faghagging Women," Heresies 12: The Sex Issue (1981).

[3] "Pornography by Women for Women, with Love," in Joanna Russ, Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts, Trumansburg, N.Y.:  Crossing Press, p. 85.

[4] Ibid., p. 88.

[5] Ibid., p. 89.

[6] In Susan Koppelman Cornillon, ed., Images of Women in Fiction: Feminist Perspectives, Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1972, p. 4.

[7] For Diane Duane, see The Door into Fire and The Door into Shadow, both from Tor Books. For R[ebecca]. M. Meluch, see Sovereign and the recent Jerusalem Fire, both from NAL. For Elizabeth A. Lynn, see especially The Dancers of Arun, The Northern Girl, and The Sardonyx Net.

* Note from 2006: Almost twelve, actually. I saw Lawrence for the first time in April 1963 and for many, many years I had the ticket stub to prove it. It's entirely possible that without Lawrence as catalyst, my fantasies would have had a western setting: the earliest fantasies I remember were based on the TV show Wagon Train and featured Flint McCullough as played by Robert Horton.

[8] In "Pornography by Women for Women, with Love," Russ argues that the Spock character in the K/S stories is something other than a literal human male. I think the character of Ali, the young Arab lord in Lawrence, can be read similarly. Ali is emotional, strong, devoted, idealistic, and his flowing dress is a hell of a lot more graceful than the dress expected of most Euro-American men. Russ 'quotes Susan Gubar as speculating that "when women s.f. writers write about aliens they are very often writing about women." Women readers may well identify as women with "alien" characters, whether the author intended them to or not.

** Note from 2006: I started college (Georgetown University's School of Languages and Linguistics) as an Arabic major but was broadsided by the antiwar movement. I eventually got my BA in history from the University of Pennsylvania.

# Note from 2006: I was almost certainly still in the snooty phase of my editorial career, where I knew the difference between which and that and felt compelled to call attention to anyone who didn't. I got over it. Experience helped, and so did a closer acquaintance with British English, in which which is widely used for restrictive as well as nonrestrictive clauses.

[9] Russ, op. cit., p. 82.

## Note from 2006: The Wikipedia entry for Marion Zimmer Bradley lists nineteen Darkover novels written by MZB herself, with the most recent published in 1989, and several more co-authored with other writers and published in the 1990s and early 2000s. Bradley died on September 25, 1999.

[10] "Introduction," Marion Zimmer Bradley, ed., Free Amazons of Darkover, New York: DAW Books, 1985, p. 8.

[11] Some years ago, Joanna Russ offered a definition of feminist science fiction that ran something like this: a work of science fiction is feminist if it shows two or more women in strong relationship to each other, not as rivals, but as friends, lovers, companions or co-workers. The definition seems eminently sensible to me, but strictly applied it would limit the category to a relative handful of books. I've long since lost my reference for this; if an of you fans out there have it handy, would you let me know?

Note from 2006: Joanna Russ probably wrote something along these lines, but I believe the thought should be attributed to Suzy McKee Charnas. In "No-Road," her essay in Women of Vision, ed. Denise Du Pont (New York: St. Martin's, 1988), she described her test for feminist fiction: "'Are there female characters of complexity, variety, and true importance to the protagonist of this story? Or is she or he surrounded by and significantly connected only to males?'

     "In other words, does the protagonist have a mother? Or sisters, women friends and confidantes, aunts, daughters, a grandmother? Female colleagues, enemies, lovers, rivals, teachers, you name it - as well as brothers, fathers, and so on? . . ." (p. 159).

     Women of Vision was published two years after my essay, but that's pretty much what I was thinking of (except that in my memory the test specifically excludes rivals; rival villainesses do not a feminist story make), but that was probably not the first time the idea had made it into print.

[12] By Sally Gearhart, Isabel Miller, Katherine V. Forrest, and Rita Mae Brown, respectively.


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